The 4th Industrial Revolution, or age of rapid technological advances, is changing the way people work with disruptive impact on business, global economy and broader society (WEF, 2020). Future of work trends generally describe a workforce that is increasingly diverse, dispersed, digital, and dynamic. The Covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated these shifts, pushing companies to fast track the adoption of technologies and remote working. But what are the human consequences of these new ways of working, and how do they align with aspirations for the future of work?
Technology and human impact
Technological advances are changing the way people work and are outpacing organisational ability to keep up, although individuals (especially Millennials) are relatively more adaptive.
Technology can be a powerful tool to create connections, increase efficiency and create more flexibility in when and where we work. However, the paradox of ubiquitous technology use is that it can overtake and overwhelm. It’s pervasiveness in every aspect of our lives has also inadvertently created a mindset of being connected and available all the time.
Research on human capital trends show that employees and organisations are more overwhelmed than ever. Stress, burnout, loneliness, isolation and informational overload are now mainstream concerns. Workload and burnout, in turn, affect retention: 84% of millennials say they have experienced burnout at their current job and nearly half of millennials say they have left a job specifically because they felt burned out. (Deloitte, 2015; Open Access Government, 2018).
The pervasiveness of technology in our lives has also created a growing sense of loneliness. Young adults are experiencing higher levels of anxiety and depression, linked to uncertainty of the future and use of social media. According to a 2018 Cigna research study, most Americans are considered lonely; for many people, the workplace is the only place they regularly have the opportunity to interact and connect with other people. (HBR 2018; Washington Post, 2018).
A third phenomenon is work performance drugs and addiction: Millennials are more affected by opioid use through smart drugs and micro-dosing to keep pace and boost their performance at work (Quartz, 2018; CNBC, 2019; The Atlantic, 2013).
All these stressors impact engagement and performance. According to the Gallup Poll, only 15% of employees are engaged worldwide, and about 35% in the United States. Gallup also noted that organisations with high engagement rates put people first. There is great room for improvement, but where are specific levers for creating high performing and healthy ways of working?
Re-anchoring on meaning, purpose and personal responsibility
New generation workers, consisting of Millennials and Gen Z will make up about two thirds in the next decade. Gallup found four themes that collectively describe millennials: unattached, connected, unconstrained and idealistic. A more recent 2020 Deloitte report shows that Millennials are also a resilient generation with “resolve and a vision to build a better future”. Thus, despite facing unprecedented health and economic disruption, the new generation of workers is characterised by a strong sense of personal responsibility to take action and have a positive impact on their communities and society.
Hence, next generation workers are now looking for meaningful careers bolstered by on demand, customised continuous learning experiences beyond just formal professional development programmes.
As technology becomes more integrated into our lives with automation and artificial intelligence replacing transactional and predictable work, higher value activities such as intuition, curiosity, colllaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking and problem solving come to the fore.
The changing nature of careers, with longer career life cycles stretching over 70 years, shorter tenure on jobs and shorter half-life of learned skills requires developmental experiences that promote lifelong learning and build up capability to adapt, connect and collaborate. Other distinctly human skills considered important are scientific and creative in nature such as team intelligence, risk taking, courage, curiosity and S.T.E.M (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills.
Meeting both performance and human needs
Organisations of the future need to extend the notion of value from cost cutting to creating value through meaning. Such organisations inspire, connect and are purpose driven. They are characterised by shared values and culture, transparent goals and projects, free flow of information and feedback and people being rewarded for abilities, not position.
Companies should look beyond just reskilling and more broadly on leadership, structures, diversity, technology and overall employee experience. Agility also plays a key role, as companies replace structural hierarchies with networks of teams empowered to take action.
They also address meaningful work, purpose of organisation, talent development, growth, rewards and wellness, work environment, fairness and inclusion and authenticity.
Additionally, as a counterpoint to the shadow effect of technology, leaders will need the space to disconnect in order to reengage. These spaces allow them to pause, step back, and to reflect on challenges for long term problem solving. They also provide opportunities to engage in deep meaningful conversations to revitalize mutual connection and cooperation.
Most of the Future of Work trends reports acknowledge the uncertainty and anxiety with the rise of technology and consequences for the job force. Many of the reports convey a mix of apprehension and anxiety due to the pace of change, uncertainty, and lack of proactiveness for organisations to change, coupled with a countervailing push to harness technologies – rather than be controlled by them - in order to create a more inclusive, human-centered future.
In the end, it all comes down to people and values. As Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the WEF writes: “We need to shape a future that works for all of us by putting people first and empowering them. In its most pessimistic, dehumanized form, the Fourth Industrial Revolution may indeed have the potential to “robotize” humanity and thus to deprive us of our heart and soul. But as a complement to the best parts of human nature—creativity, empathy, stewardship—it can also lift humanity into a new collective and moral consciousness based on a shared sense of destiny. It is incumbent on us all to make sure the latter prevails”.